Professor Scott Hewit’s course pairs Rollins scholars with special needs students
It’s been more than 10 years since Associate Professor of Education Scott Hewit launched Teaching Students with Special Needs, an elective course in Rollins’ Education department. Since then, hundreds of Rollins students have peeled back the layers of what it means to have special needs and what it takes to support them.
“The course is probably the only one of its kind here at Rollins,” Hewit says. “Essentially it’s an introductory course in special education that attracts students from a variety of majors outside of Education, including psychology and sociology.”
Each spring, Hewit works with a group of school administrators and teachers to create classroom placement opportunities that allow students to fulfill the field hours required for the class. “Over the course of the semester, students will spend 20-25 hours in the classroom working with students with different types of disabilities, including physical disabilities, learning disabilities, autism, and behavioral issues,” says Hewit, who has found that teachers are delighted to have his students in their class. “They are happy to have an extra pair of hands in their class.”
Besides working one-on-one with a child, Hewit’s students get the chance to analyze the child’s individualized education plan, often collaborating with teachers to plan activities. “Sometimes they meet the parents and come up with ways to help teachers,” Hewit says.
Each week, Hewit sets aside some time for students to share their experiences in terms of the challenges teachers are facing and what strategies seem to be working. The sharing of this cross-section of experiences helps to further enrich the course.
The placements are a win/win for everyone. “The teachers get the benefit of the student who is interested in working with students with special needs. The children get extra attention and instruction time. And the Rollins student benefits because everything they learn during our campus class transfers to the collaborating school.”
“Because I started working with community engagement long before this course, being a professor for me has always involved engaging the community,” Hewit says. “It is different working on a community engagement course with non-education majors, but they bring different perspectives that are refreshing, and help me broaden the course curriculum to accommodate their various interests, strengths and limitations.”
In recent years, Hewit has done a lot of writing on the notion of inclusive schooling. “There is a lot going on in our schools that is challenging to teachers. More and more children are being identified as having special needs and are being placed in the general classroom. That makes the job of the teacher that much more difficult,” Hewit says. “The extent to which we can expose our students to these challenges can impact the extent to which they can influence services in the future.”
Over the years, Hewit has seen a number of students from this course go on to pursue grad school in special education or a career in an organization that advocates for and supports students with special needs. Even those who don’t go on to pursue this career path report that this is one of the most memorable and influential courses of their Rollins career.
“I think there are a few reasons this course is so impactful. First, the actual clinical experience component is key. Students are always very excited to have a meaningful participative component that is well planned and coordinated,” he says. But Hewit also finds that the opportunity to begin to deeply understand the world of students with special needs can be quite moving.
“One of the first assignments in the course is to interview someone they know with a disability. It’s designed to help the Rollins students understand what it means to live with a disability,” he says. “These interviews really move them.”
Throughout the semester, students report back their amazement at how talented the teachers are working with these children. But more importantly, Hewit’s students are delighted and impressed by the progress made by children they work with. “Most Rollins students are so used to learning without disabilities. Most have not encountered grave obstacles in their lives. But the more they work with these children, the more they become so proud and impressed and amazed at the perseverance and determination they possess. The experience stays with them a long time; perhaps forever.”